Sunday, 12 July 2009

Should we believe in belief?

This week, the Guardian will be asking “Should we believe in belief?

The postulate is that ‘belief’ (for which read ‘religious belief’) does a certain amount of good and that fact alone is sufficient for its encouragement. This is even when the substance of the belief is regarded, with good reason by many, to be spurious - a ‘noble lie’.

The Guardian credits Daniel Dennett for the modern backlash against ‘belief in belief’, an affliction of many, but hypocritical in ‘soft atheists’. His position is challenged on two grounds, both, as far as I can see, problematic.

The first challenge is that societies need myths for cohesion and a sense of purpose. Perhaps without the binding effect of religion/s, the national sense of ennui would overcome whatever structure, cohesion and morality we have.

But a cursory glance at mythology would tell you that not all myths are religious. The mythic approach seems to be as near as intrinsic as you can get to the human condition, and stripped of our supernatural models we would still look for mythic constructs. A societal consensus of meaning does not need to be supernatural to be compelling. This one falls over quicker than a giraffe in high heels. For that reason it’s not one that I expect this week’s religious commentators to tackle on the nose.

The second challenge is that atheists are patronising to assuming that their approach is correct and that others are at fault for holding one of their own. As the Guardian puts it:

“There is no room in Dennett's scheme for "I think you're wrong, but I cannot prove this, and entirely accept you're right to be wrong".”

Ignoring for a moment that science does not set out to prove negatives, it is fair to say that Dennett is not a fluffy atheist. But to embody the whole movement in the approach of one man is unnecessarily harsh on the rest of us. For many (perhaps most?) atheists and free-thinkers, there is sufficient room for the unproven (and unprovable) mental constructs of fellow human beings. After all, I regularly hear the mistaken postulate that Eddie Izzard is the sexiest man in the world - many thanks to my good friend Lisa - when we all know that it’s actually Brad Pitt.

I believe there is plenty of room for the acceptance of others to be ‘wrong’, subject to 2 provisions:

Firstly, an acceptance of the right to free speech. Rights and protections are for humans, not ideas. I can hear Christian evangelists shouting their propaganda on my local high street on Saturdays, and they must accept my right speak as freely. Religion is not a special case and there is no place for the righteous wounded, a posture which represents the change from a position of strength (“You may not blaspheme or I’ll burn you”) to the status of victim (“How could you? This is a sacred area which you shouldn’t touch”). Many mythographers, incidentally, have tried to claim the same exception, that religion can only be commented upon meaningfully from 'inside'. This approach has been rightly identified on more than one occasion as nothing more than professional protectionism.

Secondly, where others’ unprovable metaphysical models have influence in the public domain, the empirical approach must prevail. I have personally spoken to people who truly believe they have been sexually assaulted by demons. I believe they believe, respect their right to believe, don’t even think they’re mad. But I assert my right to disagree with them, and don’t think that the existance of demons should be taught as fact in science lessons, taken as read in legislation, nor demon-slayers given grants of public money.

Believing in belief must be, in my opinion, a strictly private affair. I look forward to reading the commentaries this week

1 comment:

  1. 'I think you're wrong, but I cannot prove this, and entirely accept you're right to be wrong' - this sounds uncomfortably close to PoMo and the loathsome relativism. There's no such thing as true, just what's true for me.

    '...nor demon-slayers given grants of public money'.

    As far as I recall, Buffy received no state sponsorship.